A little over three years ago, just after Gary Locke had returned to Tynecastle as a coach under Jim Jefferies, I spoke to Neil Pointon to get his views on the impact the diehard Jambo might have on an underperforming Hearts squad.
Not content with just talking up his old team-mate’s obvious motivational qualities, Pointon, without prompting, had no hesitation in declaring that one day Locke would go on to manage Hearts. At that time, Locke was just 34 and few outside of football would have seen the happy-go-lucky boy with the thick Bonnyrigg brogue as obvious manager material.
Yet, inside the game, Hearts’ interim manager has always been held in the highest regard. Upon being forced to hang up his boots almost four years ago, there was almost mutiny in the Kilmarnock dressing-room when the Rugby Park board reneged on the offer of a coaching role for Locke due to a lack of cash. Since cutting his coaching teeth at Hearts, Locke has always been a vital member of the Hearts dressing-room, to the point where it is known that at least two influential players who departed last summer were of a mind that, if they were offered new deals to stay, they would only have accepted if Locke was made manager.
It was clear from speaking to Hearts midfielder Mehdi Taouil last week that he felt giving Locke the job was the best way forward following John McGlynn’s departure, even if he was diplomatic enough not to say it in so many words.
Even Michael Stewart, a relatively high-brow footballer who didn’t see eye to eye with Locke’s mentor, Jefferies, was on the radio last weekend imploring the Hearts board to see sense and give Locke the job until the end of season. Heavyweight former Hearts players such as Gary Mackay and Alex Young were of a similar mindset.
In short, Locke is a popular pick to lead the team in Sunday’s League Cup final against St Mirren. The only surprise is that he hasn’t yet been given control until the end of the season. It is understandable that Hearts wanted to mull over their options and look at other more established candidates, but from the moment it became apparent Locke was capable of sparking an upturn in Hearts’ fortunes without looking out of his depth, keeping him in charge for the biggest game of the season was a no-brainer.
While it seems harsh to many that he hasn’t yet been given the job on a longer-term basis – he might win the cup and still not remain as manager – Hearts will go into Sunday’s final led by a man on a mission.
He may have been reluctant to blow his own trumpet with regards to his chances of being named as McGlynn’s successor, but make no mistake, having attained his coaching badges and served his apprenticeship under Jefferies, Sergio and McGlynn, Locke is fully equipped to be his own man. Managing Hearts is his dream job and this weekend provides him with his first big chance to show that he has what it takes to carve a career as a No. 1. Come Sunday, there will be no prouder, more determined man in Scotland.
The Hearts dressing-room will be an impassioned place in the run-up to kick-off as the diehard Jambo rouses his players while also ensuring their nerves are channelled correctly.
Locke is perfect for this occasion. There are few other people in the modern era, after all, who have been involved in four cup finals with Hearts, two of which were won. He has that winning mentality that David Southern, the managing director, spoke of needing to bring back to Hearts in the wake of McGlynn’s exit.
Pertinent to Sunday, where he will send a host of teenagers out into battle, Locke also knows what it is to come through as a youngster at Hearts. Aged just 20, he was captaining an experienced Hearts side containing seasoned veterans like Mackay, Pointon, John Colquhoun, John Robertson, Pasquale Bruno, Steve Fulton and Gilles Rousset in the ill-fated 1996 Scottish Cup final, a match which saw Locke stretchered off with serious injury as his side lost 5-1 to a formidable Rangers team.
To highlight the magnitude of what Locke did at such an early age, just imagine Kevin McHattie or Callum Tapping leading Hearts out as skipper this Sunday. Yet this is how professional and highly regarded he was from the moment he joined his boyhood club. He has an undoubted presence and charisma about him, qualities which made him a natural for the several occasions he has been asked to stand in for his managers at press gatherings over the past few years.
Indeed Scott Booth, the former Aberdeen player who did his coaching badges along with Locke, David Unsworth, Alan Stubbs, David Weir and Paul Ritchie a few years ago, noted that Locke was by far the most assured of this group when it came to talking in front of others. Those who know him well may joke that he talks nonsense half the time, but Locke knows when it’s acceptable to have a laugh and a joke and when it’s time to focus on business.
He is a natural leader, with his old captaincy skills coming to the fore earlier this week when he had a word in the ear of Marius Zaliukas and Andy Webster, prompting them to organise a team-bonding go-karting session. This is Locke’s forte; he loves organising.
Of course there will be plenty yet to be convinced about whether or not he has the tactical nous to cut it as a manager long term. He might not be a 24/7 tactical boffin in the mould of Andre Villas-Boas or Rafa Benitez, but he knows his way about the football pitch and will have learnt plenty about the intricacies of the various formations and tactical approaches from working under the likes of Jefferies and Sergio.
Like anyone embarking on a managerial career, only time will tell if he’s equipped to cut it long term. However, Locke has more than earned the right to his opportunity in the spotlight. The smart money is on him seizing it.